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Formal Gardens and a Lifelong Lesson

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” — Audrey Hepburn

How would you like a productive and creative exercise that takes place both indoors and out during these shelter-in-place times? Not only that, it will enhance your curb appeal, lower your water bill, add value to your property, make your neighbors happy, and even sharpen your math skills. I’m talking about designing a formal garden. If you don’t fancy the formal style or if you already have a beautiful landscape, I still have an idea for you which is described at the end of today’s column.

What is a formal garden? It is a structured design that is usually symmetric and based on an axial grid. Beds of flowers, vegetables or herbs, shrubs and/or short trees are typically outlined by low hedges. The shrubs are often contoured into recognizable geometric shapes such as balls, spirals, rectangles, and cones. Some are even shaped into animals.

The concept of a formal garden originated in the Middle East and found its way to the Italian peninsula during the Renaissance. One example of this is the Gardens of Boboli at the Pitti Palace in Florence. It was designed for Eleonora di Toledo, wife of the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo di Medici. It was opened as a public park in the mid-eighteenth century and is still thriving today.

These stylized gardens became immensely popular in France during the Baroque era under King Louis XIV. The French call them “jardin de francais.” French architects (who were the garden designers of the day) may have gained additional inspiration from their own mathematical son, Rene Descartes, founder of analytical geometry. Descartes believed that the world could be measured and that space could be infinitely divided. He also believed that all movement is a straight line and, therefore, space is a universal grid of coordinates and everything can be located on its planes.

One good thing about shelter-in-place is that you have plenty of time to mull over this notion. It can best be illustrated on paper. You may remember learning about the Cartesian plane in high school. If you draw a horizontal line and cross it with a vertical line, you’ve drawn the “x” and “y” axes. Imagine that the dot at the intersection is a French chateau, that the axes are walking paths, and that the four spaces created by them are four separate gardens, or “salons” as the French would say.

Each of these gardens can be further divided into geometric shapes. In a formal garden, these shapes are defined with plants, shrubs, trees, and walking paths. Each shape further divides its space. Descartes would be thrilled.

During Descartes’ day, and perhaps influenced by him, was a masterful architect by the name of André Le Nôtre who designed the gardens at Chantilly, Fontainebleau, and the avenue of Champs-Elysees. He is most noted for the Gardens of Versailles, a grand spread covering 1,976 acres. No doubt, Le Notre not only divided his four squares umpteen times, but extended them further along the x and y axes. His divisions included kitchen garden (vegetables and herbs), floral gardens, specifically shaped lawns, topiaries, water fountains, statuary, and bosquets (at least five identical tree species planted in rank and file order so that the trunks line up.)

The formal gardens at the Chateau de Villandry were designed by its resident, Jean Le Breton, in the early 16th century. The property has separate, geometric gardens including a salon of crosses, a salon of love, a salon of music, and even a labyrinth salon.

Although the formal gardens of European chateaux are enormous, we can most definitely adapt them to our own homes. Stylistically, this works best with Mediterranean, Victorian, Tudor, and European Cottage architecture. So, here’s where your exercise begins should you be interested. First, grab a sharp pencil, paper, and measuring tape from your catch-all drawer.

Next, head outdoors to your own front or back yard and draw a rough outline of its shape and then measure it. Head back indoors and draw this shape more precisely, and to scale, using graph paper, ruler, protractor, and compass. Or better yet, any drawing software program. SketchUp Make is an easy and free one. Now, using geometric shapes, symmetry, and rhythm, design your own formal garden.

Take topography, sunlight and logical traffic flow into consideration. A nice way to outline your garden is with a dwarf hedge like boxwood, which is also a good choice for shaped greenery or topiaries. Golf Ball Kohuhu, a variety of pittosporum, and junipers are also good options to create round, conical or spiral shapes. These plants are all drought-resistant and once established, won’t require the same amount of water as a lawn.

As you develop your plan, add height somewhere — a short tree or tall fountain in the center might work. Let symmetry and consistency guide you. Rather, let them command you. Keep the design balanced and orders so that it does not get lost. While these adjectives may seem at odds with Mother Nature, what I’m really doing is using her materials to create a place and vision of serenity.

Each plant, each path, each shape has its place and reflects a peaceful vignette. It is imperative that this vignette not be disrupted by impulsively adding garden art and chotchkies. If anything is added, it should be of quality and have a design purpose.

Follow these guidelines and, throughout the seasons, rain or shine, sheltered-in-place or free as a bird, your formal garden always looks très belle.

For those who passed on this exercise but have children who are going a little stir crazy these days, I’d like to share a personal story. I could even say it relates to those who are home-schooling their little ones. It’s a lesson I learned and one that I’ve practiced in my life and in my business.

When I was six years old, my parents built a house in a then-undeveloped area of Browns Valley. In fact, the street to get to the house had not yet been paved. We were surrounded by apple orchards, cow pastures and tall grass fields. Even though this grass was taller than me, my father put me to work pulling weeds on our property. For every bag I’d fill, I’d earn a dime. Eighty-seven cents today. These were brown bags from Purities Grocery Store. How many of you remember it? Anyway, every time I’d delightfully declare that I’d fill a bag, my dad would come by and press his foot down on the weeds rendering the bag half full. At the moment, I’m sure I was frustrated and didn’t understand why my kind, loving and adored dad would do such a thing.

I later realized that he had taught me the value and pride of a job well-done. He taught me to respect money and to be fair and truthful in all areas of life. So many parents today are tackling online lesson plans and learning to be in-home academic teachers. My story is just a reminder that some lessons can be learned without a computer and, in fact, can be learned outside in the fresh air. Children pulling weeds, whether part of a family activity or done solo, whether in a formal garden or not, can be an influential lesson to last a lifetime.

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